Austin taxpayers could save millions with one change to city’s special event budgeting

AUSTIN (KXAN) — With property tax caps looming, the city of Austin is looking to save money. 

At the Tuesday Public Safety Commission meeting, city leaders discussed no longer waiving fees for special events. This would require for-profit corporate events like South by Southwest to pay millions more in order to continue celebrating in the city. 

Each spring, there’s a cost to maintaining order for the large-scale tech and film event. 

Each year, police, fire and ATCEMS are paid overtime to make sure everything runs smoothly. And each year, the City of Austin waives those public safety fees for SXSW. Instead, the taxpayer covers the cost of the tab. 

“Enough is enough, pay your own bill,” said Rebecca Webber, Vice Chair for the Public Safety Commission. “[SXSW is] making money, hand over fist. They can shoulder their own bill for public safety costs.”

In 2019, the average Austin taxpayer did this for eleven city co-sponsored events. For South by Southwest alone, the city of Austin waived $2.3 million dollars. But for the other 10 events, the city only needed to cover $321,000 in total. 

“I don’t think SXSW is going to pack up and go home over $2.3 million which, to them, may not be that much, but to taxpayers, is a significant amount of money,” Webber said. 

KXAN reached out to South by Southwest staff, but did not hear back. 

Bill Manno, the City of Austin’s Corporate Special Events Manager, said covering these public safety costs encourages the festivals to stay. The event will often return the favor in the economic impact it sparks from its participants.

“It’s a boom to the local businesses and the city itself through sales tax and alcohol sales tax,” Manno said. “That’s part of Austin’s culture is the diverse events that we have.” 

Last year’s report by Greyhill Advisors shows the conference and festivals brought in just over $350 million to the city’s economy. That’s the most in its 32-year history. 

The report found $175 million came from people who took part in the event. Another $148 million was tied to year-round staffing and infrastructure. And $27 million is from people who enjoy the free events tied to SXSW. 

But the members of the public safety commission have agreed: they want to use the money typically handed over in public safety fees elsewhere. 

“All we’re saying is stop giving away the money. Just stop doing it,” Webber said. 

The recommendation to stop waiving the special event fees for for-profit festivals will likely go in front of Austin city council in the spring. It will be up to council members to decide how, and for which events, they will waive fees. The council would review other community special events, like the Austin Pride Event and Juneteenth Parade, on a case-by-case basis. 

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